Connecting history and literature

The “fixers” are interpreters, mediators who allow linguistic contact between foreigners and locals. In the Middle Ages, they were used by pilgrims and missionaries. Today, by Western weapons, which end up abandoning them, as in Afghanistan in August 2021.

Born in Zagreb in 1969, Zrinka Stahuljak is professor of literature and civilization, director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). She notably published Bloodless Genealogies of the French Middle Ages. Translation, Kinship, and Metaphor (UP of Florida, 2005) and Pornographic Archeology. Medicine, Middle Ages and French history (PURE2018), as well as, more recently, Contemporary Mdival. For connected literature (Macula, 2020) and The Fixers in the Middle Ages. History and literature connected (Threshold, 2021). In 2018, at the invitation of Patrick Boucheron, she gave four lessons at the College de France on fixers in the Middle Ages.

Shooting and editing: Ariel Suhamy.

The Life of Ideas : After your four conferences at the College de France, you published a book entitled The Fixers in the Middle Ages. What is a “fixer”?

Zrinka Stahuljak: The “fixer” is a journalistic term, which appeared in the 1970s during the war in Vietnam and which became almost common in the media during the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Who are these fixers? These are people who work the language as interpreters, but who also do all kinds of jobs which allow either journalists, or the military (and, in the Middle Ages, pilgrims and missionaries), therefore people who are not familiar of a terrain, a language or a custom, to be able not only to function, but quite simply to survive. These people are also called couriers, intermediaries, arrangers, facilitators, perhaps even mediators. Basically, they are intermediaries, whose main characteristic is language work in situations of war, conflict, tension, hostility.

The Life of Ideas : Does your interest in fixers have a personal, intellectual, historical origin?

Zrinka Stahuljak: This interest comes from a very personal experience. I was marked by a contemporary event in the 1990s, the wars in former Yugoslavia, where I myself was a fixer. I first worked with journalists, soldiers, observers who verified the ceasefire. Obviously, the transformation of a personal experience can be done within the framework of a biography, but I wanted to do something else, as a scientist, medievalist researcher, historian and writer.

I wanted to translate this experience, not necessarily explicitly; but when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, I realized that there was a connection between what I had experienced in the former Yugoslavia and what was happening in Afghanistan. These theaters of war, which are repeated from time to time, with the intervention of the West, have given rise to an exploration of this subject. This is why, in the book, I often return, rhythmically, to the question of Afghanistan, France and its intervention, with a passage through the Middle Ages.

“Brangien, the fixer of Tristan and Yseut. Jean de Valenciennes, 1376-1380, Tristan and Ysolde and the following Brangien, in sandstone with the remains of polychromy. Console of the Bruges Town Hall, Bruges, Groeninge Museum. (Photo: author).

The Life of Ideas : In your book, you bring together not only history and literature, the personal and the collective, but also two periods that are apparently completely opposite, the Middle Ages and the very contemporary, almost current events. How do you justify this rapprochement?

Zrinka Stahuljak: I proceeded with an avowed comparison between two periods which do not touch, which are in continuity, but not in contiguity: the medieval and the contemporary. I proceeded by constructing two devices, wanting to reveal something, in the confrontation of these devices, that we cannot see otherwise. Because, when we are in diachrony, in continuity, we find ourselves searching for similarities, resemblances or radical departures.

“The Fixers of the Great Mongolian Khan”. The Great Khan sending a message to the Pope through Niccol and Maffeo Polo. Marco Polo, The Curse of the World, 1410-1412.

What I wanted to do was to construct the medieval system of the meeting of missionaries and pilgrims with Muslims in medieval Syria, of this meeting through the fixers. The second, contemporary device is that of the meeting of the French army with the Afghans and their fixers.

It is therefore in the construction of each device, and in the comparison of these devices with each other, that questions and answers emerge that have not yet been asked. For example, for the Middle Ages, “fixer” is a term that did not exist. But, thanks to the question I ask, he makes us see, for the Middle Ages, something that we had not yet seen. In the same way, for Afghanistan today, we can see the French relationship with this country in another way, which I pose in ethical terms.

The Life of Ideas : Under what conditions did the meeting between Westerners and Muslims take place?

Zrinka Stahuljak: In the Middle Ages, meetings between Christians and Muslims occurred in a moment of peace or calm, but always in a state of tension, of latent hostility. After 1291 and the loss of Saint-Jean d'Acre, Christians no longer had a port of access to the Holy Land and depended on the goodwill of the Egyptian sultan.

But quite quickly, already around 1350, we see the beginnings of a real commercial exchange between the two camps: the pilgrims go on an “organized trip”, most often ten days on the holy places, in return for a sum of 70 ducats and a contract which is signed with the “boss” of a Venetian gal who negotiates with the sultan’s officers on site. Everyone finds their interest in it, although, despite the contracts made, the pilgrims remain at the mercy of their guides and interpreters, their fixers, of whom they often complain, because they feel betrayed, placed in danger of death, and that they are always extorted. more money at the cost of their lives.

The case of missionaries, especially those who went to the Mongol court in XIIIe century, is different. It is they, setting off on an adventure, without any means of travel or translation, who teach Westerners the absolute necessity of learning foreign languages ​​and of trusting only one's own means, because there will never be a guide faithful enough for the truths of the Christian religion.

This context of latent conflict is today similar to the situation of Western armies in Afghanistan, where the task of mediating was entrusted to the fixers, these auxiliaries who were abandoned on site during the American retreat in August 2021.

The Life of Ideas : You write that XVe century the Burgundian state acted as a “fixing state” (p. 138). Why mention the Burgundians here?

Zrinka Stahuljak: What is also interesting is the use of the term fixer in the analysis of entire states. I am talking about a “fixer state”, which is also a “state of fixers”: medieval Burgundy. This case is interesting, because it was not a kingdom, but a principality, a duchy, which managed to become an empire. What I demonstrate is that the empire was established thanks to intermediaries. The main mechanism of all empires is them. However, the nation-state that we know today is another state form, which knows much less about intermediaries. Hence the interest of the book: putting the intermediaries back into the debate and dialogue.

The Life of Ideas : Once the war is won or lost, the weapons start again. States often betray their fixers. What happens to them then?

Zrinka Stahuljak: The relationship with the fixers is complicated, although it seems simple: we make a contract, and the contract is fulfilled on both sides. If your life is saved, you get paid. However, when it comes to life and death, the ethical question quickly arises. If our life was saved thanks to a fixer, what do we ultimately owe him, beyond the money we paid him? The question we can ask, in simple terms, is: “What do we do with a fixer when the war is over?” »

In this sense, the fixer destabilizes our relationship with our society, our values, and democracy. The nation-state is not a state made up of intermediaries, unlike the empire. We have no desire or ambition to go through intermediaries. In our democracies, we are used to being the originator, the colonizer, the one who dominates, but we do not like to be in debt to the one we came to save in principle. The question arises every day: what to do with these fixers who saved our lives and who we left behind?

The Life of Ideas : How does your work concern writing and, in particular, literature?

Zrinka Stahuljak: Connected literature is a literature of fixers. This is literature made by fixers, for fixers. This is the case of the Burgundian state that I analyze in the book. The prism through which we see history and through which we read literature is no longer that of an author, nor of a prince-governor or a lord, but of a fixer who recognizes no subjectivity, of this intermediary who makes the network and who makes it work. the state. It is through this prism that we read history and literature. Connected literature is obviously inspired by connected history.

Connected literature is therefore a story, an archive of possibilities, because we can see literature organizing the world. This is what I show in the analysis of Burgundian libraries, which brought about an empire, the Spanish empire. It is the temporal palimpsest, that is to say we move from medieval to contemporary, from contemporary to medieval, from Burgundy to today's Afghanistan.

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